Up near the northwest corner of New York’s Central Park, across from the intersection of 106th Street and Central Park West, stands The Strangers’ Gate, one of 20 named entrances to the park, which was designed in 1858 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. If you pass through the gate and climb the 77 stone steps to the top of Great Hill, you will enter, in the words of Rebecca Chace, “a fairy tale: a wilderness welcoming all strangers, as Olmsted and Vaux intended.” And you will see almost immediately on your right a small stone that marks the Peter Jay Sharp Children’s Glade. This is an urban playground unlike any I have ever seen. It has no swings or slides, no sandboxes or ball fields, It has only some large rocks set about an open lawn, trunk-sized logs on which to climb or sit (and one in which to hide), trees and flowers now waiting to bloom, and paths that give the place a sense of unthreatening mystery and quiet adventure.
The park’s gates have intriguing names – Woodman’s Gate and Mariners Gate, Warriors’ Gate and Farmers’ Gate, Women’s Gate and Child’s Gate – but to me Strangers’ Gate is the most appealing of all. It was named, wrote Olmsted, in that mid-19th-century prose which many find stilted now, because “the city, although metropolitan by position, is cosmopolitan in its associations and sympathies, and is ever ready to extend a courteous welcome to al peaceably disposed ‘Strangers’ or ‘Foreigners’ who may be led by inclination or business to spend their time within its boundaries; this welcome being offered, however, not merely as a matter of courtesy but as a recognition of the fact that it is highly important, both to the general and particular interests of the whole nation, that its cities should be visited, and its institutions studied and comprehended by intelligent and industrious travelers from other countries, for by such means only can unworthy prejudices be removed, and incorrect estimates rectified.”
That sentiment helps explain another anomaly about The Strangers’ Gate – and almost all of the other gates to Central Park: there is actually no gate there at all, only a wide and welcoming stairway. These “gates” are not barriers to protect the park from outsiders but doorways to its beauty. Originally, the city’s oligarchs had pushed for tall, ornate gates through which to drive their carriages, which, wrote Chace, “Olmsted and Vaux saw as nothing less than an attack on everything their design was meant to accomplish.” For them, “the low walls and simplicity of the wilderness inside the park represented democracy and the American republic.”
Meanwhile, 160 years later, alarmed by a caravan of asylum seekers from Central America, the U.S. government prepares to send National Guard troops to our southern border.